[July 12, 2010 By Joan Giangrasse Kates, (c) Chicago Tribune]
Keith Anwar repaired trains and wrote plays with equal pride.
A maintenance technician with the Chicago Transit Authority for nearly 25 years, Mr. Anwar’s script “Kabulitis,” an Afghan term for dysentery and other intestinal illnesses, was awarded the 2010 Dionysos Cup at the Chicago Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Festival of New Plays in June.
Last month, a staged reading of Mr. Anwar’s script was performed at the theater, and a fully staged play is being considered for the 2011-12 theater season.
“His reading had the force and emotional impact of a fully performed play,” said Richard Engling, co-founder and artistic director of the Polarity Ensemble Theatre. “That rarely happens and only with a great script.”
Mr. Anwar, 58, died of liver cancer on Monday, July 5, in his Oak Park home, his family said.
Mr. Anwar’s father was a native of Afghanistan who with his Brooklyn-born wife took part in an ill-fated attempt to promote secularism and modern thinking in mid-20th century Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan his parents received numerous death threats, in part because his mother refused to yield to demands she wear a veil — a stance her husband supported — and eventually were forced to leave the country.
“Kabulitis,” a touching drama based on his mother’s experiences, tells the story of an elderly American woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease who is haunted by memories of Afghanistan.
His parents returned to New York, where Mr. Anwar was born and raised. He received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1974 from Brandeis University, near Boston, then moved to Chicago and began working for Inland Steel Co. in East Chicago.
“He had studied the labor movement in college and then found himself experiencing firsthand the hard realities involving workers’ rights,” said his wife of 23 years, Connie Pfiffner.
In 1979, as a member of United Steelworkers of America Local 1010, Mr. Anwar was fired for his refusal to cross the picket line of another USWA local at that plant, his family said.
The campaign to get Mr. Anwar reinstated generated widespread support among steelworkers in the Chicago-Gary area. That support was critical in obtaining a favorable decision on his grievance by the National Labor Relations Board.
But the board’s decision was overturned in 1983 by a federal appeals court that backed the company, Mr. Anwar’s family said.
“Keith had acted in defense of a tradition that built the industrial unions in this country: Picket lines mean don’t cross,” said his brother, Bruce.
Mr. Anwar worked for two other Chicago-area manufacturing plants before landing a job as a maintenance technician with the CTA nearly 25 years ago.
“Keith took great pride in being what he called a ‘train repair man,'” his wife said.
Several years ago, Mr. Anwar joined the Oak Park Writers Group, Chicago Dramatists and the Dramatists Guild. He began writing a series of short plays, many of which were given staged readings in area theaters.